I was baptized as an infant, had an early childhood of religious indifference, and after a short flirtation with threatening God I'd become a satanist, I gave my life to the Lord at age 10. I was once an anti-Catholic Protestant, and currently I am becoming a lay member of the Carmelites, an ancient order of the Catholic church, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and dedicated to prayer and the mystical life. How does that happen, you ask? By the grace and mercy of God, I've had to learn to recognize the difference between my sin and God's holiness, and to seek Him alone.
First, let me summarize for you how I see the core of what God is teaching me today. Then let me try to trace out for you some of how I arrived at this conviction.
I firmly believe that the Christian life means living a continual state of conversion unto Jesus Christ, after we have accepted the salvation He won for us, until we reach perfect union with God. This work of conversion is a work entirely of grace, entirely a gift, but it is a grace and a gift with which a soul can and must cooperate. We have to say yes to God and do what is ours to do. This perfect union with God is something that we can and should enter into during this lifetime, but not all the saved do. We enter into it by a gift of God I'll call purgation. Scripture tells us that nothing impure can enter heaven (Rev. 21:27) and that our works will be tried by fire to remove what is worthless (1 Cor. 3:15). But we can't control or command our own purgation; God has to do it. We can either let Him do it as He wills in the course of our earthly lives, or we will have to experience it after this life is done and before we enter heaven. People call that purgatory. Everything I want is summed up in seeing the face of Jesus in heaven. Everything I hope for on earth has to do with living out the fruits of purgation and the holiness God works in me. Nothing is worth anything in comparison with the glory of being united, with all the holy ones, with the Blessed Trinity for all eternity. And the quest for eternal glory has already begun now. So Lord, whatever it takes, with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I give you my yes.
Now, every church I have belonged to has been somewhere on the scale from diametrically opposed to what I just wrote, to uncomfortable and uncertain about how to teach it and train believers in living it. And I've been right there in the midst with them.
My first religious formation, after first giving my life to the Lord as a child, was in an ultra-conservative Lutheran setting. Here I learned to honor the Bible as the Word of God, to read and to memorize it. While I did this, though, I had a lot of sin in my life. I've always been an interior-oriented person, so these sins were the seething sort, like hatred, bitterness, pride, arrogance, judgment, grudges, and the like. The Lutheran teaching on sin did not help me repent or be cleansed of these sins. The emphasis was that all we do is like filthy rags, but that the Father imputes Jesus' righteousness to us. Sin was all handled in the eternal perspective and we simply lived with our inevitable corruption while in heaven God had a clean tally sheet with our name on it, our bill paid by Jesus. And I went on hating, being bitter, and so on. Occasionally in those days, Bible verses such as 1 Jn. 4:20 ("Whoever claims to love God but hates his brother is a liar") jumped out and startled me. But the conflicting theology left me more confused than convicted.
One summer during college, I met Christians who witnessed to me that the Holy Spirit could personally enter my life and empower me with Himself. They called this being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Once I cautiously read through all of the Scriptures and decided that they had the Bible on their side, for the first time I had to face down this entirely passive notion I had that God did everything for me. When I was convinced from Scripture that God would baptize me in the Holy Spirit, I simply got depressed that apparently He hadn't. I figured it must mean He didn't love me or I wasn't important enough. I sadly moaned prayers in the self-pitying and despairing style that was common to me. Then, a revolutionary thought came to mind: Ask Him. Maybe you don't have because you don't ask. I had to make an elaborate ritual of it that included meticulously finishing all of my schoolwork, buying a book and setting aside an entire evening to read it, but I accomplished all that within 8 hours of this revolutionary thought that I could ask God, and I asked. And when I asked, BAM, the floodgates opened, and I had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Immediately I sought out a new church to be among people who could help me understand what happened to me. The primary grace I experienced here was the release of years and years of hurt and sin during praise and worship. I learned to open my heart to God in the midst of other people, and I also began to be aware that God would speak to my heart. Gradually I learned to recognize the difference between His leading and my own confusion. This was something I could not do when I was isolated.
While still in a Lutheran college and attending that charismatic fellowship, God planted a seed that has had far-reaching effect. I had to write a paper for a very difficult class that was to count for 50% of my grade, and I had no idea what to do. The class was on Medieval and Renaissance philosophy. One day I paced the library stacks and begged God for some insight as to a topic. He answered with one word: "mysticism." I responded happily, "Ok, Lord! But, what is that?"
I researched St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing, and others. I was captivated. Yes, I was a bit put off that these were Catholic authors because everything I'd ever learned about Catholicism concerned how it was wrong. But these people... they wrote from an experience of loving God that left me with a pounding heart and breathless. At one point I just dropped my book on the library table and told the Lord, "If there is anyone left on the face of the earth who knows you and loves you like these people did, Lord, that is who I want to be with."
A few years later, the memory of that day in the library was the only thing that kept me from losing it as I talked with a friend I had deeply respected who had shocked me by becoming Catholic. I later had to face lots of ugly judgments, pride, and arrogance as I finally admitted to myself I had never once in my life read anything about Catholic doctrine written by a Catholic. My friend told me, yes, there are indeed people who love God like St. Teresa of Avila. They are called Carmelites. He gave me a little book about how to pray like a Carmelite. And I was amazed all over again.
I became a Catholic in 1993 in order to enter the world of mystics and saints, and I found the world of bingo, indifference, and sometimes outright scandal. Jesus had called me, though. The first time I had gone to Mass to actually be open to Him, He stunned me, shocked me, overwhelmed me, by revealing His presence to me in the Holy Eucharist. I knew I could not walk away from the Catholic Church without walking away from Jesus. He also spoke to me the promise that He is the Resurrection and the Life, and that all who believe in Him, though they die, yet shall they live. I wanted mystics and saints, but felt nothing but death in me and around me. But Jesus promised me life.
In the last two decades I've known purgations both slow and steady, and sharp and painful. God has also blessed me beyond belief with joy and the utter certainty of His love for me, and I've always seen Him provide everything I need, especially when I hardly realized what I needed. Together we have broken open and laid flat my hard crust of a heart, and He has indeed given me a heart of flesh.
It takes six years to become a Carmelite secular, and I have three years remaining in my initial formation. Part of the mission of a secular Carmelite is to teach God's people the wisdom of the saints I've mentioned, to help ourselves and others to grow in holiness and unto union with Christ. Every day I renew to God my desire to become His instrument, that He may teach His people holiness both through our words and hidden prayer. What other response can I have but to give all that I am to Him who has given me everything?